Tailoring Instructional Groups: Alterations to Fit Differentiated Reading Curriculum

Summer 2004 Masthead

Elizabeth Fogarty
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

The most extraordinary thing about a really good teacher is that he or she transcends accepted educational methods.
-Margaret Mead


Marcus was a talented reader who came to fifth grade with a love of learning. He particularly enjoyed learning about dinosaurs and the solar system and outside of school his work consisted of putting together models of dinosaurs and traveling to museums. He also enjoyed researching the solar system on the Internet, in magazines, and in college level texts.

Kara had a passion, too; hers was writing. Kara also had a talent for reading and was working on a novel that she intended to illustrate and publish. Occasionally she brought the novel to school to show friends.

Andy was a developing reader who had recently seen the movie The Fellowship of the Ring. He intended to read the entire J. R. R. Tolkien trilogy, just as he had read determinedly the first four Harry Potter books. However, Andy had been a struggling reader since first grade when he had been held back.

Allie was a typical fifth grade reader, who usually preferred not to read. At the beginning of the school year, she frankly admitted her disinterest in reading. Although she was not defiant, Allie was certainly not a motivated reader.

I taught fifth grade reading to a class of 24 students that included Marcus, Allie, Andy, and Kara, whose reading abilities spanned eight grade levels. These students and other students of varying ability and motivation comprised a class of readers as unique from one another as they were similar. This scenario is the rule, rather than the exception, for today’s teachers.

Students come to school in various stages of the learning process. Some have had many opportunities to develop as readers, mathematicians, or scientists through exposure to books and other resources by caring adults. Others bring gifts and talents beyond those of their classmates that need to be nurtured. Some bring a motivation and passion for learning. Others may have learning disabilities or an inability to pay attention. Because students do not enter school with equal achievement abilities, educators must treat each student as a unique, individual case and attempt to appropriately meet his/her learning needs. To do so, educators must provide instruction that will challenge students, rather than frustrate or bore them.

Instructional grouping is a tool that tailors instruction to the unique learning needs of students, allowing teachers flexibility in altering the content and the level of difficulty of the material they teach their students.

A Controversial History

Instructional grouping has been a teaching tool for many years, probably originating by necessity in one room schoolhouses. Even in today’s modern classrooms, it continues to be used to meet the varied learning needs of students. This tool has, however, been a source of controversy for several decades in the education field. In 1985, Jeannie Oakes wrote Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, a critical analysis of one form of grouping called tracking. Tracking is the rigid placement of students in instructional groups for assignment to classes based on standardized test scores (Rogers, 2002). The inflexible nature of this type of grouping can pigeon-hole students as either good or poor based on class assignment; which may lead to negative self-esteem. Oakes’ study found that the students in a “higher track” typically received instruction that was of a much higher quality than those students in the “lower tracks,” even alleging that the practice promoted racism and elitism. Of particular interest, however, is that gifted students were found in all track levels (Rogers, 2002).

The effects of Oakes’ study were so far-reaching that all types of instructional grouping came under scrutiny by teachers and administrators. Often, grouping was abandoned by well-meaning teachers who had been scared away by the controversy surrounding Oakes’ study. They believed that all forms of instructional grouping were equivalent to the structure and effects of tracking. Although a considerable amount of research has been published on instructional grouping, few researchers have been able to adequately encompass all of the variables of grouping to produce quality research studies.

Often, only part of the picture has been included and very important factors have been left out. In Robert Slavin’s 1986, 1987, and 1988 studies, for example, he asserts that instructional grouping and differentiation for gifted or special education students were ineffective. However, Slavin’s 1986 research did not include gifted students in the sample studied. Furthermore, his 1988 research was not a best-evidence synthesis as the 1986 study had been, but was a narrative review in which he concluded that programs for the gifted were ineffective (Allan, 1991). Schools have, however, used Slavin’s research to determine programming options for gifted and special education students in elementary schools without closely examining the data.

Another study by Moody, Vaughn, and Schumm (1997) examined views of special and general education teachers on instructional grouping for reading. This study found that general education teachers primarily tended to use whole-group instruction, while special education teachers used homogeneous grouping. This tendency to use whole-group instruction primarily seems to be in response to the studies condemning ability grouping. Whole-group instruction does not have a greater benefit for gifted students than ability grouped instruction, however, and studies show that gifted students should spend part of their day with like-ability peers (Kulik & Kulik, 1991; Rogers, 1991). Although both groups of teachers believe that grouping decisions should ultimately be left to the teachers, the general education teachers felt that these decisions were commonly dictated by the administration.

Flexible Grouping

Educators and administrators need to realize that instructional grouping is not an inherently flawed practice. Flexible grouping arrangements, for example, allow teachers to make membership changes to accommodate student readiness, learning styles, and interests, while balancing social needs (Rogers, 1991; Unsworth, 1984). Unsworth lists several guidelines for the use of flexible grouping.

  1. There are no permanent groups.
  2. Groups are periodically created, modified, or disbanded to meet new needs as they arise.
  3. At times there is only one group consisting of all pupils.
  4. Groups vary in size from 2 or 3 to 9 or 10 depending on the group’s purpose.
  5. Group membership is not fixed; it varies according to needs and purposes. (p. 300)

Also, it is what happens in concordance with grouping that determines its effectiveness. When thoughtful, flexible grouping arrangements are used along with appropriately differentiated instruction, for example, instructional grouping is beneficial for students (Renzulli, 1994; Tomlinson, 1999; Westberg & Archambault, 1995).

Differentiation is a form of flexible grouping. Teachers modify methods and/or materials when teaching to meet the needs of learners at varying levels of readiness. Recently, differentiation has gained popularity as teachers receive more training and researchers show its effectiveness. Practitioners of differentiation acknowledge that students come to the classroom with varied learning needs. Like a tailor, these teachers work to fit their instruction to the sizes and styles of their students. Teachers have learned that a few alterations to a one-size-fits-all curriculum result in a better fit for more students. By “hemming” the curriculum, for example, I could modify tasks to make them more manageable for Andy. On the other hand, the curriculum can also be “hemmed” through curriculum compacting for a learner of high ability like Marcus. In Kara’s situation, I could adjust the curriculum to “let out the waist” and leave a little breathing room to implement more choice in the day. A little “mending” of book choices even helped Allie choose books that she enjoyed.

Teachers have also learned that differentiation takes a considerable amount of time to do correctly. Some teachers may shy away from differentiation because of this. Effective use of flexible grouping, however, can make time spent differentiating more practical when instruction is delivered to several students in a group.

Using Flexible Grouping to Teach Readers

Instructional grouping in reading is not a new concept to teachers, but today’s flexible grouping arrangements are more varied than the ability-grouped arrangements of years past. There are three main purposes for grouping in reading: to increase reading skills, to increase content-area knowledge, and to increase enjoyment of reading. Teachers have the responsibility of developing these three facets of readers and can effectively do so using flexible grouping.

Increasing Reading Skills
I used several types of assessments to determine the reading skill level of my students. I used reading response records to determine readers’ fluency. I also used the Accelerated Reader STAR test to determine comprehension levels. On the basis of these assessments, I learned that there was a span of reading levels from the fourth through twelfth grade. With so many students reading beyond grade level, differentiation would be the only way to accommodate all learners in the class.

I was particularly concerned about the students reading above a sixth grade level because the grade level curriculum would not provide an adequate challenge for them. Therefore, at the beginning of every unit, I offered students the opportunity to take a pretest on the content of the unit to demonstrate their prior knowledge. It was made clear to the students that if they demonstrated mastery of content on the pretest, then they would be excused from lessons involving that material during the unit of study. Intensive study on a topic of interest would replace the time that would have been spent in class.

Marcus and Kara were eager to demonstrate their prior knowledge of the content. They were motivated by the fact that they would have the opportunity to work on a project of interest to them. Other students also took advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the content, with the incentive of getting out of instruction time. Allie, who had never shown much interest during reading class, was one of these students.

The decision to offer pretesting as an optional activity rather than a requirement was purposeful and done for several reasons. I assumed that high-ability students would want the opportunity to demonstrate their prior knowledge of the content area and be compacted out of lessons that would be otherwise redundant. I also assumed that optional pretesting might demonstrate which students would be likely to take responsibility for their learning and which might not. My third contention was that the pretest material would be difficult for students without prior knowledge of the subject matter, and may lead to unnecessary frustration and unpleasurable association with reading.

I noted that the high ability students almost always opted to take the pretest. Sometimes, however, a high ability student opted not to take the pretest. In these cases, I asked the student individually if he or she was sure about not taking the pretest. Once in a while the student changed his or her mind. In other cases, the individual maintained his or her position. In these instances, the students’ decision not to take the pretest demonstrated a very important message for me; for some reason, this student was demonstrating a reluctance to put forth effort.

By making the pretest for each unit the student’s choice, I placed the onus of learning responsibility on the student. In one case, Connor, a capable student, opted not to take the pretest. When Connor’s classmates were excused from lessons on previously learned material, he began to see the benefits of compacting. Connor indicated that he would like to take the pretest for the next unit. In this way, I enabled Connor to assume responsibility for his own learning. Perhaps this element of responsibility and choice can help alleviate underachievement in learners.

Once students had taken the unit pretest, the teacher was able to discern what each student knew. Those who did exceptionally well (90% and above) were able to compact out of the posttest and use their pretest grade as their final grade. If there were any concepts they had seemed to have completely missed, they were asked to join the class for that lesson, but were usually excused from skill practice. Students with a moderate mastery over the content were excused from selected lessons, but attended those on topics they had not yet mastered.

Grouping arrangements were formed based on the strengths and weaknesses of the students, as evidenced by the pretest. The group working with the teacher changed daily according to the students’ prior knowledge. Some days the group was small, comprising only a few students. The smaller group size meant the teacher could spend more time with the students who had little prior knowledge or needed reinforcement on the topic being presented. On days when a new skill or concept was presented, the group was larger because more students were being introduced to a new skill.

Guided reading, the practice of grouping 3 to 8 readers together for small-group reading instruction, was another way I accommodated all of the reading needs in the classroom (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001). Group membership was flexible to allow for changes in students’ reading progress. In this format, students read text targeted toward their zone of proximal development. Although text selection was not the same for all students in the classroom, all students engaged in meaningful reading experiences at their current instructional level.

Increasing Content-area Knowledge
Teachers also develop a knowledge base about their students during reading class. Thematic study is one method that has been used to increase students’ understanding of a topic; particularly in the areas of science and social studies. I incorporated novels into a thematic study of Native American culture. Because the students in my classroom were readers of such diverse ability levels, I needed to offer a variety of literature choices. I decided on four books that had all been written by Native American authors, an important factor in my choice. The books represented variety in both difficulty and interest. I helped the students choose their groups based on their reading levels and interest. Each group was responsible for reading its novel, as well as gleaning information from the story about the lives of Native Americans. After reading, all students participated in a discussion on Native American culture. Although they had read different novels, all students were able to participate in the discussion, sharing specific information from their novel.

Increasing Reading Enjoyment
A positive association with in-school reading experiences can stimulate reading interest that permeates the classroom walls. A goal of creating lifelong learners includes creating lifelong readers. Experiences that are far too difficult or too easy can make reading a frustrating experience for some students. Making curricular adaptations using grouping and other methods can alleviate this problem and maintain positive associations with reading for all students.

Kara was a passionate reader and writer. Her high pretest scores excused her from many of the unit lessons, a process of telescoping the curriculum for high ability learners called curriculum compacting (Reis, Burns, & Renzulli, 1992; Reis & Renzulli, 1992). Kara and I worked together to come up with an alternative activity that would stimulate Kara’s reading and writing growth in place of the unit lessons that would offer no challenge for her. Kara decided to read the book P.S. Longer Letter Later by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin, in which two female protagonists write letters back and forth to one another. Her idea was to write a book of her own in the same style by writing letters to a friend who had recently moved away. Together Kara and I collaborated on the standards by which the project would be judged. Kara’s project was challenging enough to produce growth, yet stimulated interest as well.


Many teachers and administrators cite “creating lifelong learners” as one of their goals. Creating lifelong learners involves developing not only reading skill, but interest and motivation as well. Using instructional groups can help teachers alter one-size-fits-all curriculum to validate students’ readiness and ability levels and ensure that all students feel appropriately challenged and motivated.

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